The term militia featured heavily in 2020 public discourse and, judging from the US Capitol breach in 2021, it will likely remain a topic of debate for years to come. Indeed, 2020 started with a drone strike in Baghdad that killed Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis — considered to be the leaders of Shia militias in Iraq, particularly Kata’ib Hezbollah and other militias under the Iraqi state-sponsored umbrella organization Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). The same word was used in a totally different context and with a different meaning following the 2020 US presidential election, when the country experienced a significant mobilization of right-wing militia groups, with armed demonstrations taking place in front of government buildings across the United States.
While the term “militias” is used in drastically disparate contexts — from Western countries to conflict zones — it is often misused by the media and misunderstood by the public. Therefore, it is worth exploring the meaning of the word and its implications. Encyclopedia Britannica describes a militia as a “military organization of citizens with limited military training, which is available for emergency service, usually for local defense.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as a “a military force that is raised from the civil population to supplement a regular army in an emergency.” The term derives from Latin and means military service — “miles” was the word for soldier in ancient Rome. While theoretical definitions differ from one another, the type of groups usually labelled as “militias” nowadays are also quite different.
Sometimes the definitions of militias, insurgents, terrorists and criminal gangs can overlap or be blurred, but scholars have identified several criteria and characteristics to distinguish between them. While researchers have identified more than 200 active pro-government militias operating in 60 countries, there seems to be no general consensus on what exactly a militia is. According to Professor Paul Rexton Kan, the key distinctions between militias and other armed organizations, such as terrorist, insurgent and organized criminal groups, are based on their emphasis on local guardianship and the desire to reduce political, social and security gaps. He argues that: “Terrorist, insurgent and guerrilla organizations are armed groups that actively seek to overthrow and replace the state, while organized criminal syndicates or gangs seek to evade or corrupt it. Militias can be found acting against state interests or in concert with them.” Some academics believe that militias represent a special form of organized violence that seek political legitimacy. Empirical analysis shows that informal delegation of violence to these groups can help some governments avoid accountability for violence and repression.
In Rexton’s theory, militias view themselves as protecting a specific political, ethnic, tribal, religious or familial group from harm due to gaps that the state is believed to be unable or unwilling to bridge. As “filler forces”, militias act as local guardians that step in to provide political power or public safety. Yet, given their characteristics and actions, many people wonder if armed far-right groups in the US should be considered as defensive, insurgent or even terrorist groups that try to intimidate, threaten and harm political opponents. In civil war scenarios like in the MENA region or Eastern Ukraine, militias are recruited from local ethnic groups. This is done largely through top-down initiatives promoted and supported by foreign powers such as Iran, Turkey, Gulf countries or Russia.
Militias can be pro or anti-government. They can also be state-sponsored or spontaneous. As Rexton notes, a local community may spontaneously create a militia that eventually becomes coopted by the state, thereby becoming sponsored. Militias may include private citizens, as well as members of the military, veterans and police officers. Semi-authoritarian and illiberal regimes often create militias to ensure their political survival, such as the Basij paramilitary group in Iran loyal to the IRGC and the Milicia Nacional Bolivariana in Venezuela, which is a political tool of President Nicholas Maduro’s regime.
In other cases, militias were established as self-defense forces, like the Autodefensas in Mexico who protect local communities from the violence of drug cartels. While these groups are not supported by the government, they are tolerated. Some of these groups later turn to insurgent vigilantism with broader political goals. In Brazil, milícias are paramilitary groups formed by corrupt police officers who carry out both vigilante and organized crime activities. These groups enjoy support from some politicians who see them as the lesser evil when compared to the drug gangs controlling the favelas (slums). Recent reports show that the facção (drug trafficking faction) also promotes a new religious extremism espousing Evangelical Christian and messianic discourse to a group of five favelas in Rio de Janeiro named “Israel.” The armed group also forbids Candomblé syncretic rituals among Afro-Brazilians.
Evolution of American Militias
To better understand the multifaceted concept of militias throughout history, we shall analyze their role in different countries and current crises. In the United States, during the American Revolution and the Civil War, militias provided a pool for the recruitment and drafting of regular men. Later on, state-controlled volunteer units, referred to as the National Guard, were formed in most states. National Guard units are under the joint control of state and federal government. All National Guard personnel can be federalized under the National Defense Act Amendment enacted in 1933 with the creation of the National Guard of the United States (the DC National Guard is solely under federal control).
In the past, posse comitatus powers allowed law enforcement officers, typically a sheriff, to summon and mobilize citizens into a sort of militia to assist in security operations. Although considered obsolete, it is still codified in some US statutes. However, the Posse Comitatus Act enacted in 1878 forbids the use of the US armed forces as a posse comitatus, or for law enforcement purposes, without the approval of Congress. However, the limitations do not apply to the National Guard when activated under the authority of a state governor. The US president could also circumvent posse comitatus restrictions by invoking the Insurrection Act, which former US President Donald Trump threatened to do on several occasions. This act allows the president to deploy the military in a domestic crisis if certain conditions are met.
In the US constitutional system, we must distinguish between “organized militia”, which consists of National Guard members, and “unorganized militia”, which refers to the pool of men who can be recruited into the reserve, as well as the state defense forces, under the sole authority of state governments. In addition to these legal forms of militias, there are several private organizations and groups that refer to themselves as militias, even though all 50 states “prohibit private, unauthorized militias and military units from engaging in activities reserved for the state militia, including law enforcement activities,” according to a fact sheet published by the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University Law Center.
Proliferation of Right-wing U.S. Militias
In 2016, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) identified 276 militia groups — up from 202 in 2014, marking a 37 percent increase. In 2020, the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) tracked the activities of over 80 militias across the US and found that the vast majority were right-wing armed groups. ACLED divided them into mainstream militias who aligned with US law enforcement (like the Three Percenters, the Oath Keepers, the Light Foot Militia, the Civilian Defense Force, and the American Contingency), street political movements (such as the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayers) and libertarian groups skeptical of state forces (the Boogaloo Bois and People’s Rights at Bundy Ranch). However, popular groups like the Oath Keepers are quick to correct anybody who calls them a militia, aware of the term’s legal implications and the media’s political violence reference.
Some experts think that far-right fringe militias will soon carry out white supremacist terrorist attacks, and the FBI is already monitoring them as a domestic security threat. Despite the fact that the Proud Boys was the only group mentioned by Trump in the presidential debate, they actually are not the most dangerous or even the most heavily-armed militia, although they do hold extreme political views and have carried out some violent actions.
The Boogaloo Bois advocate for the armed overthrow of the federal government. The Three Percenters take their name from an inaccurate claim that only three percent of Americans fought against the British in the War of Independence. The Oath Keepers are mainly made up of veterans and law enforcement officers, which makes them more dangerous. They pledge to defend the US constitution from all enemies foreign, but especially domestic. In their view, domestic enemies are the liberal elites and the ones responsible for the “election fraud” claimed by the Trump campaign under the “Stop the Steal” slogan.
Not all American militias and private armed groups are right-wing. For example, the Not Fucking Around Coalition (NFAC) is a black nationalist paramilitary militia that, in 2020, held an armed parade in Georgia during Black Lives Matter demonstrations. However, experts agree that far-right militias pose the greatest threat to the national security of the United States.
Middle Eastern Militias
The media used many terms to describe the storming of the US Capitol which included: insurrection, sedition, rebellion, terrorism and riot. Meanwhile, some researchers wondered if “militia country” was a description more fit for the US than war-torn Libya. Although there are some similarities — such as the use of intimidation and armed threats to influence the behaviors of elected officials — the two countries cannot really be compared. Libyan militias largely engage in all kinds of criminal activities, including drug and human trafficking, kidnappings, racketeering and also large-scale armed clashes. They are not politically motivated, but pursue malicious local goals.
In conflict zones and civil wars, political and ethnic militias play a different role. For instance, the US contributed to the establishment of the Sons of Iraq militia, a coalition of Sunni tribes during the Anbar Awakening against the threat posed by Al Qaeda in Iraq. Similarly, the sectarian conflict in Syria and Iraq pushed many regional powers to support militias in a proxy war for geopolitical hegemony. For example, Turkey deployed its Arab militias in Northern Syria, Libya and even in Nagorno Karabakh. However, the biggest regional backer of militias is Iran, with its support of the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, as well as Shia and Alawi communities in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and beyond.
In the context of hybrid conflicts such as the war in Eastern Ukraine, both sides deployed militias. These militias helped boost soldier morale and their guerilla tactic skills also came in handy. Neo-Nazi groups such as Patriots of Ukraine or Right Sector formed their militias and were later integrated into the Ukraine National Guard under the Azov Battalion. Some of these nationalist and far-right groups tried to intimidate and violently threaten institutions, while others engaged in criminal activities with a certain level of impunity. In Donbass, separatist militias were directly supported by Moscow with weapons, logistics and training in the framework of Russia’s hybrid warfare doctrine. The ambivalent nature of militias in the Ukrainian conflict is paradigmatic of the political challenges posed by this violent non-state actor and the role they could play beyond the battlefield in the democratic landscape.
Ukraine is not the only European country where militias are active. In fact, far-right militias carry out paramilitary and violent political activities in several EU countries, albeit in a more nuanced way. Slovenia had to deal with the nationalist “Štajerska varda” (Styrian Guard), which in 2018 conducted weapons and combat training in the forest. In Hungary, the “National Legion” militia formed in 2018 with anti-Roma and neofascist slogans, similar to the Magyar Gárda, the paramilitary wing of the nationalist Jobbik party, which was banned in 2009.
As global security becomes more and more impacted by asymmetric conflicts and hybrid threats, conventional armed forces will give way to state-sponsored militias who can deploy violence with the authority of the state and in the state’s interest. Other militias are not state-aligned and seek to overthrow the government to impose a new political order. There is a heterogeneous and complex set of militias with a variety of objectives and methods. Global trends such as climate change, urbanization and growing inequality will create new demand for armed groups and security providers, but will also create new security dilemmas for institutions. Militias may become a paradigm of the future security dimension, but further academic research is needed to understand and explain the boundaries of the concept and how it differs from other phenomena.
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